By Greg Hudson
The 2013 season saw big changes in the AL West, namely the addition of the Houston Astros to the previously four-team division as part of the restructuring of the league. The newcomers had struggled mightily in their final seasons in the National League and that trend continued in their new division. Meanwhile, the perennial playoff contender Texas Rangers found new competition from the Oakland Athletics, while the star power of Albert Pujols in Los Angeles didn’t produce the desired results. Here’s how it looks for the 2014 season.
Houston Astros (51-111, 5th in 2013)
The Astros had a truly miserable season in 2013, and there’s little surprise to it. The 2005 World Series runners up have long lost or liquidated their best players and haven’t had the strength in the trade or free agent markets to assemble a team that can compete for anything other than last place. In 2013, Astros hitters ranked 29th in on base percentage at a lowly .299, with the team’s leading hitter Jose Altuve batting just .283. Coupled with a woeful pitching staff ranked dead last in team ERA and WHIP, the surprising stat is that they somehow managed to win 51 games.
But while the Astros haven’t added much quality or depth to their roster for this season, they can take heart in the progress of top prospects like pitcher Mark Appel, who could be facing major league hitters by the end of the 2015 season.
Los Angeles Angels (78-84, 3rd in 2013)
The 2013 hardly went according to script, as far as the Angels are concerned, as a team usually considered to be playoff-caliber failed to reach the .500 mark. But this failure isn’t the sign of a lack of quality, but rather a sign that the other teams in the division are improving, namely the Athletics. After all, the Angel’s have sluggers Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, and Mike Trout as part of a lineup that ranked in the top five in batting average and on base percentage, along with a starting rotation featuring Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson. But for all the offensive success, pitching remained a weak spot for the Angels in 2013, as the pitching staff ranked 24th in ERA with a 4.23, 26th in opponent batting average at .261, and 27th in WHIP with a 1.38.
New signings may help those numbers improve this season, with two new starters joining the rotation: Hector Santiago and youngster Tyler Skaggs, who impressed in limited appearances in Arizona. New setup artist Joe Smith will do his best to make life easier for closer Ernesto Frieri. The already solid lineup has also been padded with a potential .300 hitter in third baseman David Freese, while power hitter Raul Ibanez will likely fill the DH spot.
It’s tough to say whether they’ll be a playoff team this season, and it will likely depend on the reliability of the rotation, who certainly underperformed last season. If they can keep up with the likes of Texas and Oakland, they’ve certainly got the talent to make a run for October ball.
Oakland Athletics (96-66, 1st in 2013)
Oakland was the revelation team of 2013. Despite ranking only 14th in batting average, the A’s put up the fourth most runs in the league last year, thanks in no small part to timely hitting and the power of sluggers like Brandon Moss, Yoenis Cespedes, and Josh Donaldson. A solid pitching rotation starring Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin ranked in the top 10 in most pitching departments, including the third best WHIP in the majors.
Considering the talent at play in Oakland, the A’s didn’t need to dip too deep into the market this off-season, but they did bolster their pitching staff with the addition of veteran starter Scott Kazmir, a move which may pay dividends. The bullpen also welcomes setup man Luke Gregerson and closer Jim Johnson. Look to see them throwing several times a week, all season, and well into October.
Seattle Mariners (71-91, 4th in 2013)
After a fairly anonymous season in 2013, the Mariners made a big move for the 2014 season, landing free agent Robinson Cano in a big-money move that has Seattle fans cheering and the rest of the country scratching its head and the length and value of the contract given to the ex-Yankee.
But the addition of Cano, along with DH Corey Hart and outfielder Logan Morrison, doesn’t make up all the ground between the Mariners and teams like the Rangers or Athletics. A poor performance from the pitching staff last season won’t necessarily be helped by the addition of two rookies to the starting rotation this season, despite the efforts of ace Felix Hernandez. And trusty new closer Fernando Rodney won’t have much work to do if his starters can’t give him a lead to work with.
They’ve still got some work to do, but things are looking up, at least.
Texas Rangers (91-72, 2nd in 2013)
The Rangers had their hearts broken by the Rays last season, but they’ve responded to the challenge of the playoff race by strengthening an already strong squad. Sure, the departures of David Murphy and Ian Kinsler hurt, but the addition of slugger Prince Fielder and hurler Tommy Hanson will only add quality to the fans in Arlington.
Yu Darvish will look to put his remaining doubters to shame this season, and there’s no doubt that new arrival Shin-Soo Choo will look to replicate his success in Cleveland and Cincinnati in the Lone Star state.
If they can play consistent baseball all season, then they stand a chance to take back the division crown from Oakland. But if they fail in that department, it’s likely that the road to the playoffs may again run through Tampa Bay.